Tonight’s State of the Union address will be watched by millions of Americans across the country, many of whom will be anticipating a loud, braggadocious Donald Trump veering off script. Others may tune out after the first 10 minutes and the first five standing ovations.
But lawmakers and officials across both political parties will be listening intently to what President Trump has to say. What are his legislative goals for the new year? Will he deliver a message of unity and political reconciliation or one of divisiveness? And will people walk away convinced that President Trump will at last be presidential, leaving the personal insults and pettiness aside?
Everybody has their expectations. Depending on whom you ask, Trump either needs to soften his tone and start healing the divide tearing the two parties apart, or he needs to speak to the blue-collar and populist base that won him the election in the first place. Sen. Chris Coons wants a speech emphasizing “something positive about bipartisanship and problem-solving.” Rep. Jim Jordan, the conservative rabble-rouser and former Chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, hopes the president goes back to the basics: “Let’s keep focused on what the American people sent us here to do: Drain the swamp, drain this place and remember that we work for the families that sent us.”
As hard as it is for Trump to ignore constructive criticism, he should instead block out the noise and deliver an address with one goal in mind: to not screw up.
“Don’t screw up” seems like silly, juvenile advice, but it may be the most practical for the president at this phase in his tenure. Trump, after all, has a dismal approval rating (38 percent, according to the Gallup tracker). His popularity has yet to crack the 50 percent mark, which is a relatively easy accomplishment for a president in his first year. He never really had a honeymoon period after inauguration, like his predecessors did. And, with the notable exception of his first speech to a joint session of Congress last winter, he has spoken and tweeted exclusively to his core supporters, picking fights and using language that many Americans rightly see as suited to a back alley bar rather than the Oval Office.
Trump, in addition, needs to start taking his responsibilities as the head of the Republican Party seriously. Although he doesn’t consider himself a party man or a traditional politician playing by the traditional rules, he would be making a severe miscalculation if he ignored how his words and actions impact the GOP in a midterm election year. And this is an election year that is skewed toward Democrats, who are out-raising some Republican incumbents, channeling the grassroots energy of progressives and enjoying just south of a 5-point lead in the generic congressional ballot. Some political analysts are looking at the numbers and predicting a Democratic wave this year, owing in large part to the inability of the Republican Congress to get much done and a Republican president who is under the cloud of a special counsel investigation. While Democrats are contacting party headquarters, excited about running for office, the GOP is hemorrhaging candidates; over three dozen Republicans lawmakers are either retiring, resigning or moving on to new political endeavors.
All of this could spell doom for the GOP this year, which would also mean defeat for Trump, who doesn’t like losing in anything.
So, if Trump wants to help himself out, he’ll keep his eyes on the teleprompter, give his address and get the hell out of there before making a mistake. And, even more importantly, he’ll keep his itchy Twitter finger away from the keyboard and actually think before posting something that completely negates the speech and forces Republican lawmakers to duck for political cover.